New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Monday ordered the Maharashtra government to stop cutting trees in Mumbai’s Aarey Colony, intervening in a spiralling war between conservationists and the state authorities that led to several arrests.

The Maharashtra government responded by promising to obey the court order.

There is, however, no clarity on the number of trees that have already been felled over a two-day cutting spree on Friday and Saturday to make way for Mumbai’s Metro rail expansion.

The court order came in response to a public interest litigation filed by a group of law students. The forest bench of the apex court will next hear the case on 21 October.

The law students had written to Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi on Sunday, urging him to direct the state government to stop cutting trees. The Supreme Court registered the letter as a PIL and took suo motu cognizance of the matter. With the court closed for Dussehra, a special vacation bench was constituted to hear the plea.

Aarey Colony, a green belt in suburban Goregaon, has over 500,000 trees. The Bombay high court had on Friday allowed the state government to go ahead with the felling, following which the state moved swiftly to cut trees to make way for a shed for the upcoming Metro project in the city.

The Mumbai Metro Rail Corp. (MMRC) had planned to cut some 2,600 trees for the proposed shed.

The decision to fell more than 2,500 trees at Aarey Colony for a Metro shed sparked protests from residents (Photo: PTI)
The decision to fell more than 2,500 trees at Aarey Colony for a Metro shed sparked protests from residents (Photo: PTI)

It has defended the tree felling, saying that it was restricted to a small area in Aarey Colony, and was necessary to ensure a modern transport system for Mumbai.

Several politicians and members of the Bollywood film industry extended their support to activists protesting the felling of trees. Shiv Sena, an ally of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government in the state, sided with the protesters.

The special bench comprising justices Arun Mishra and Ashok Bhushan, after considering a notification by the Maharashtra government, observed that Aarey area is a no-development zone, but not an eco-sensitive zone.

The apex court sought a report from the state government on afforestation. “Tell us how many saplings you planted. How have they grown? What’s the status of your forests?" asked Mishra.

Solicitor general Tushar Mehta, who was representing the Maharashtra government, replied that no more trees will be cut, adding that the Supreme Court could decide on the legality of the tree felling after the vacations.

Justice Mishra also inquired about the people who have been arrested or detained for protesting, and whether they have been released.

“If they have not been released, release them immediately on furnishing personal bond," he added.

The order said a “status quo (must) be maintained till the next date of hearing with respect to cutting of trees".

Former Maharashtra chief minister and Congress leader Ashok Chavan and Nationalist Congress Party leader Supriya Sule hit out at the BJP-led state government.

“The haste with which the Maharashtra government acted over the weekend in cutting trees is condemnable," Sule said.

“The Supreme Court’s order is a tight slap on the face of the BJP-Shiv Sena government that has tried to suppress the voice of the common man and activists protesting against Aarey tree felling," said Chavan.

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